The talk/sing style of rock ‘n’ roll has been away for too long. Its powerful, inherent ironies have been absent from our lives for nearly as long as it took The Simpsons to decay into its current, zombified form.
Art Brut was seemingly the high watermark of this style, which they perfected on 2007’s It’s a Bit Complicated. And where are they now?* Not since the start of the Obama administration have we seen a group willing to dryly and dispassionately hold the ephemera of their lives up as the subject of frank commentary, only to have it slip from their hand and shatter on the floor while someone off-screen shouts a variation of a ’90s sitcom one-liner from off screen,** prompting them to laugh along with the rest of us all while giving furtive glances around the room to make sure they’re in fact in on the joke.
It is therefore fitting that as yet another neo-liberal ascends to the office of the presidency, we are gifted with a fresh, self-referential missive from the collapsed cornucopia milieu of punks turned knowledge-workers who emerge from the clouds of Juul exhaust that swirl and choke the patio air of partially reopened co-working spaces to recite the highlights of their favorite Reddit threads and give us their take on when Twitter stopped being a good place to tell jokes. Welcome to 2021. Welcome to Cheekface.
The L.A. trio of Cheekface play the type of punk you’d expect three people living in LA to play. Somehow both cloyingly earnest and performatively detached, pithy and to-the-point, while wholly submerged in the indulgence of personal idiosyncrasies.
A painfully delightful dichotomy put to motion by the syncopated punch of Pavement pilfered hooks and left to skate on the surface of a calculating sense of cool and nearly danceable grooves, the hallmarks of single-syllable alternative rocks stars of a distant era like Beck and Cake. It’s a fun ride, even if the group’s incredibly forward sense of humor doesn’t always manage to fully overwhelm the dire sense of ennui it betrays.
The lyrics and their delivery are what really makes Emphatically No. stand out from the similarly witty but sincerely sad pop punk of Jeff Rosenstock and AJJ. Vocalist Greg Katz can be heard impeccably well over the roll of stabby guitars and strummy leads that the band offers, giving him the opportunity to deliver some grin-drawing one-liners like “Keep the receipts if you want to return life’s gift to the mall” from “Call Your Mom,” and “I am eating like its Thanksgiving, but without the gratitude, shouting fire at therapy and at Panda Express” on “Emotional Rent Control.”
It’s difficult to understate how much of Mark E. Smith’s thousand-yard stare Katz is able to deadpan capture on the apocalyptic acquiescence of “Original Composition” and how well he is able to imitate Lou Reed’s whispering drawl on the sugary and Velvety “Do You Work Here?” Put plainly, if there was a cool, personality anchored punk band that an older sibling was likely to put on a mixtape for you back in middle school, you’ll likely find a representative moment for them on Emphatically No.
If you’re amused by Cheekface’s self-defeating examination of the tragic comedy of our daily lives, then you’re likely to get something out of this record. If not, that’s ok too. The gag here is that our culture is basically out of runway and has yet to manage the take-off necessary to set our course for a better future. What we get instead of a miraculous lift-off or a heroic rescue, is the pilot switching off the no-smoking sign and telling us to light ‘um if you have them while we wait for the wheels to buckle under the weight of the plane leaving us to careen into the air-traffic terminal.
The joke is that this is not a joke. This is our lives, hurtling ever towards disaster. You can laugh or cry, or both, but no fury of emotional response is going to right our course. The real dark irony is that a lot of people think that sitting in first class (or striving to sit in first class) will somehow save them from our shared fate. We’ll see how that works out for them on impact.
You can stream the entirety of Emphatically No. below via Bandcamp:
Get a copy of Emphatically No. from New Professional Music here.
*I realize Art Brut are is still around, but honestly, who is buying their records at this point? You? Is it you? If it’s you, just say so.
** Something like “Smooth move, Ex-Lax” or “Nice Butterfingers, Bart!” Note: people in the ’90s communicated exclusively through references to consumer products and commercials, unlike today, where the dominant mode of communication is 10-year-old pop-songs sampled for Tik-Toks